“It’s a very human thing, of course” – An interview with Shakira Stellar

Shakira Stellar is a drummer, poet, and composer who, over the past few years, has released incredible atmospheric spoken word soundscapes into the world. We caught up about what first inspired Shakira to write poetry, and the process behind the music-poetry synthesis. – The Editors.

I know you first and foremost as a drummer, and then began to see your amazing spoken word soundscape work be released into the ether. What brought you to writing poetry in the first place?

At the end of 2018 I was very heartbroken, it was a sudden break with someone I had quite an intense short-lived romance with. Once it had ended I had a lot of questions and things I wanted to say, a lot of things I didn’t understand and I couldn’t talk to that person anymore. You want to save face and all that so you’re like “ok cool, I understand” but you have all these things that you want to say and also you have all these emotions of like, sadness, anger, frustration, sometimes you feel fine and sometimes you’re not, you’re riding all these different waves. 

So initially I started writing in response to that and it helped to purge a lot of big feelings and intense emotions that I had, and then I was quite depressed for a while. But I knew and I recognised that I didn’t always feel shit, I had a lot of fantastic friends around me who I could hang out with, I enjoyed going for walks down the Thames with or having beers with friends and just having a nice time and I wanted to commemorate that as well, and remind myself that I don’t always feel sad, I don’t always feel heartbroken, I can enjoy life!

So I set myself the New Year’s Resolution in 2019 to write a poem a day, and loosely using the word ‘poem’, I didn’t follow any writing rules, it was just a way to keep this kind of log of everyday so that when I looked back I could reflect on it and have this archive of stuff. I was looking back at all the heartbreak stuff and going, it’s so dreary! Like, you have fun, you can enjoy yourself!

Coming from a musical background, is there a certain kind of poetry that speaks to you?

My friend years ago introduced me to automatic writing. I love that Surrealist technique of freewriting, kind of dissociating yourself from conscious thought, perhaps using a visual prompt or a sound or even just taking a deep breath and just writing and emptying your mind. It took a long time for me years ago to unlearn the usual ways that we write and construct ideas and sentences, and so much conscious thought can be self-critical and self-judgmental, you may not even write on the page because you’re going “I don’t know what to write”. So I use that technique quite a bit and I don’t mind that it’s a bit abstract, I don’t mind that it’s not grammatically correct, it’s just a way to get it to freeflow. So I would incorporate the automatic freewriting with that idea of trying to write everyday and I could notice that I felt more confident to write. 

Tell us about putting your poems to music – did you start by writing lyrics?

I wouldn’t necessarily say I write lyrics, I definitely feel more confident to sit down and write the music and rhythms as a drummer. I feel my poetry can sometimes be quite abstract or I like to stay in line with the automatic writing thing of editing minimally because you want to commemorate that moment for what it was. I like to speak in metaphors or leave it to interpretation, so the fusion with music – I wouldn’t say they are songs – the music is there to enhance the words or help to create the atmosphere and sounds and vibe for the words, rather than a song with verse and chorus. I want the words and music to weave in with each other. 

Mid-2019 I did a project with this arts charity called Collage Arts which was specifically for women of colour to explore and create artwork to commemorate and celebrate five women of colour who across British history have had an impact, but whose stories are maybe not told or are told from a certain perspective. There was a mix of poetry and spoken word, photography, film, set design to interpret their work. I was doing the poetry and spoken word and focusing on Zaha Hadid, so as part of these workshops I wrote this poem (Concrete Ruin). Because it was going to be exhibited and they wanted it to be an audio experience, I ended up writing some background music for it so it could be listened to on headphones, and I recorded the spoken word. I like to incorporate visuals and even if I am not using a visual prompt I can have visualisations I guess, when I’m writing or when I’m imagining things and so I’ll try to recreate that through the music.

I released a track last year with an artist and producer called Blue Loop, we collaborated together where I wrote and spoke the words and played the guitar and she created the synth and rhythmic backing track.

Music and poetry are both pretty subjective. When you collaborate, do you find that you pull in different directions when it comes to responding musically – i.e. do you think major chords while they think minor?

Ah me and major chords, we don’t get on! Or we do, haha, but if there are too many majors I’m like where is the minor? If it’s too happy I’m like there’s got to be a sense of trepidation somewhere! The collaborations I have done so far have worked well and we have been on the same wavelength, we’ve been able to respond to each other. Blue Loop had the track and I had a few words that I thought would fit, and I would always carry a notebook with me as well to do the automatic poetry scribbles. I would write at galleries, I would write during gigs in the dark so the scribbles would go all over the place because I couldn’t see what I was writing. So for the collaboration with Blue Loop, a lot of that I had written during an Akram Khan dance production at Sadler’s Wells. It felt that it fit the track and Blue Loop and I worked together, we threw things back and forth, we were able to compliment each other in a really interesting and exciting way. 

Another friend of mine who plays the vibraphone, Jess Mollie, I sent her a drum track I had recorded – bass drum, snare and ride – and she recorded some vibes on top and I thought it was really spacey. We listened to the track over and over again, she recorded three variations on the same drum beat and then we did automatic writing together on Zoom to try to do some freewriting. The interpretation of the sounds and the music was very different. Like I was saying, it takes a bit of time, I think, to feel comfortable with the idea of writing in an abstract way or not worrying about grammar, or running with strange visualisations you might be having, the trippier the better! 

You’ve done a lot of work as an educator with Girls Rock London. Any words of wisdom for poets looking to start creating or writing to music?

Recently with Girls Rock London, I co-ran songwriting workshops for 300 students on Zoom and it was with the aim of introducing these young people to songwriting and to generate lyrics. I would say one of the biggest things that can stop people from writing or creating any art is self-judgment and self-criticism. It’s a very human thing of course, we compare ourselves to other people, we don’t think we’re good enough, and we can be our worst enemy sometimes. What I think automatic writing does really well is remove that idea of self-criticism or judgment about what you are writing. You give yourself two minutes to write continuously, and then at the end of those two minutes you think, ‘ok that’s what I’ve created and this isn’t going to be my best work ever, but what happens, happens and I accept that’. I think everyone has a creative spark in them.

Any recommendations for music to write to/ poets to read?

Nayyirah Waheed’s collection of poems, ‘Salt’ and Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poem ‘you don’t know the half of it’. I love to freewrite to music. I’ve been writing to a lot of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music – the ‘Mosaic of Transformation’ album is amazing. Also listening to a lot of 80s disco and funk, trying to get high vibes in these low vibe times.

Photo credit: Chloe Faye

Shakira Stellar is a London based drummer, poet and composer. Shakira Stellar was a Roundhouse Resident Artist in 2018/19, drumming in the band SILVA, and composed the soundtrack for the Migration Museum’s podcast ‘Departures – 400 Years of Emigration from Britain’. Inspired by the automatic writing process and abstraction, Shakira Stellar creates atmospheric spoken-word soundscapes that take you on visual journeys through alternate worlds.
Find Shakira at @shakira.stellar on Instagram and Soundcloud.